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The Rediff Special/Sheela Bhatt in New Delhi

Atal Shanti is buzz word in Delhi

January 01, 2004

Nothing is being left to chance during the preparatory stage of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's trip to Pakistan for the SAARC summit January 4 through 6.

Till the moment of his departure, Vajpayee will be constantly briefed not only by his Cabinet and senior officials, but also by bodies such as the fourth National Security Advisory Board headed by CV Ranganathan, former Indian ambassador to China; retired senior officials in the ministry of external affairs and the intelligence community who have dealt with Pakistan; and other non-governmental personalities engaged in Track II diplomacy with their counterparts in Pakistan.

The National Security Advisory Board advised the Cabinet last October to withdraw Indian troops from the border. Ranganathan is known to be in favor of a more nuanced Pakistan policy, the cornerstone of which is a continuation of the firm stand on terrorism, and greater flexibility on all other issues. Under his leadership, the NSAB had last year recommended a long-term vision statement on Pakistan, which was not accepted by the government. The Board will reiterate its suggestions before Vajpayee's departure.

The briefings seek, overall, to ensure Vajpayee is prepared for any contingency; such preparation is seen as key given the enormous media attention the event has attracted worldwide.

Much of this attention has to do with the possibility of the visit furthering the fledgling Indo-Pak peace process. In official circles, the thinking is that while the visit will further the process, and may even see a meeting between Vajpayee and either Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf or Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, there is no real possibility for a substantive summit between the leaders of the two nations.

The buzzword in New Delhi, for now, is Atal Shanti; officials use the term to denote a line of thinking that the peace process, continued on the sidelines of SAARC, could eventually lead to an Indo-Pak summit. "Once the people start traveling between Uri in Jammu and Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, India will review and rethink the situation," a senior official closely involved in the peace process told


He said a post-SAARC summit could lead to a liberalization of travel between Jammu and Kashmir and PoK. This is not, he argued, necessarily detrimental to India's position that the entire J&K, including PoK, is an integral part of India.


Thus, Indian Kashmiris being allowed to visit PoK with Pakistani visas could be explained as a tourism promotion measure, which has nothing to do with the future status of PoK, the official felt.


While substantive summit-level talks are ruled out for now, the expectation is that there will be bilateral talks at various levels on the sidelines of SAARC; even such talks have their uses, officials say.


"We are heading for normalization of the Line of Control as much as possible," a senior Intelligence officer dealing with Pakistan pointed out. "If bilateral talks take place between India and Pakistan at any level, they will set the ball rolling."


Officials, in fact, have an extensive wish-list of what they expect to achieve during, and in the immediate aftermath, of the SAARC summit.


Suggestions mooted include the re-opening of the Indian consulate in Karachi, which was ordered closed by then Pakistan prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 1994; reiterating the demand for the arrest and handing-over of some of the 20 wanted terrorists living in Pakistan as a confidence building measure; normalization of economic relations; a more flexible attitude on Pakistani suggestions for Indian participation in multilateral talks on the gas pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan and oil and gas pipelines from Turkmenistan to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan; and launching expert level talks on the nuclear confidence-building measures envisaged in the Lahore accord of February 1999.


Unlike previous occasions, however, the current peace process is highlighted by a pragmatic, take it easy, policy.

Many believe, thus, that the current step-by-step approach should continue to be followed; that there should be no rush to create drama, in the form of surprise announcements, for the benefit of the media.


"Unwarranted euphoria has always been the bane of Indo-Pakistan relations," B Raman, former additional secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, told


"The time is for slow and measured steps forward, not another hype-driven Indo-Pakistan political mela like what one saw in Lahore and Agra. We should not forget the lessons of Lahore and Agra. How to nurse the present atmosphere of optimism without falling into the trap of over-ambitious and unrealistic ideas -- that is the question which should guide us in Islamabad," he added.


"Many fingers in India and Pakistan will be kept crossed as Musharraf and/or Jamali meet with Vajpayee on the margins of the SAARC summit. Even if they part with a smile and a promise to keep in touch, that will be some success, even if there are no concrete agreements on any bilateral issue," he said.


Senior officials in the MEA and PMO are meanwhile working overtime finalizing arrangements, preparing option papers and continuously assessing the ground situation in Pakistan in the wake of the two recent attempts to assassinate Musharraf.


Arrangements for the prime minister's security, stringent at the best of times, have received greater priority in the wake of the two incidents. While Pakistan has repeatedly assured all concerned that there is no terrorism threat to the SAARC summit, the government expects its own intelligence agencies to give an independent assessment.


Vajpayee's visit meanwhile has generated unprecedented media interest. "The SAARC summit will be a bigger media event than even Agra," a Pakistan official involved in the granting of visas to attendees told "More than 350 journalists have asked for visas. In addition, at least 150 officials and prominent personalities from various fields will be visiting Islamabad."


The Pakistan high commission office in New Delhi has been flooded with requests for visas. One news channel wanted more than 30 visas for its crew; only 12 were approved.


While such media interest is flattering, there is an undercurrent of official concern.


"If the euphoria-prone Indian media hypes this summit in the Agra way, then there would be undue public expectations of Indian and Pakistani leaders to deliver," a Pakistani official pointed out.


"We believe the forthcoming Indian election will also be a complicating factor. And if the expectations are belied and the Indian side is seen as uncompromising and rigid by the Pakistani people, it could have an adverse impact on Pakistan's internal politics."


Recent experience is one reason for the caution; initiatives begun with a lot of fanfare are yet to get off the ground.

One such relates to the December 23 announcement by Islamabad that flights between Lahore and New Delhi and  between Karachi and Mumbai would be re-started from January 1.


While both governments are behind the move, the Pakistan Airlines office is still to accept bookings, because they have not augmented staff to deal with the extra workload.


Similarly, "Pakistan has requested India to wait for the SAARC summit to be over before resuming the Samjhauta Express," an intelligence officer told "They are not ready to handle and monitor the train traffic, expected to be around 3,000 passengers per trip."


Such hiccups notwithstanding, both sides have remained largely positive; even the hawks in New Delhi have begun singing in a softer key.


"We understand that our leaders are looking for a way to start a working arrangement," a Pakistani official involved in the peace process said. "On the sidelines of SAARC, let the process begin."


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